April 22, 2019

Estonia’s Long Road to NATO

We made use of the right moment in international politics.

Paradoxically, Estonia’s road to NATO began in 1949, when the Alliance’s founding agreement—the so-called Washington Treaty—was signed. Article 10 of this states that any European country may be invited to accede to the agreement. A similar decision might as well have been made on Mars, of course, for as far as the three annexed Baltic states were concerned, the contents of the document were impossibly out of reach. However, years went by and in 2004 the same article and the same terms were used to formalise Estonia’s application. The Washington Treaty has passed the test of time and has become a tool for reuniting Europe.

The presence of the Alliance’s air policing mission at the Ämari air base has become an eloquent symbol of Estonia’s NATO membership. Ekspress Meedia / Scanpix

Estonia has now been a member of NATO for 15 years and a whole generation has grown up to view membership as normal and natural. There are even many young people for whom the presence of NATO forces in Estonia is ordinary and not worthy of attention. Yet the road to becoming a member of the Alliance was not a long, straightforward sequence of logical events. When asked if things could have gone wrong, it could be said that Estonia’s accession to NATO was a sort of miracle, and only thanks to hard work and good luck was the goal finally achieved.

Estonia’s journey to NATO membership actually started in 1990, when Lennart Meri became foreign minister. The foreign ministry team at that time was uncompromising—Estonia had to belong to the West in every conceivable way. Of course, there was no mention of NATO, but the position of aiming for the West in all its forms was set in this period. Estonia demonstrated this most powerfully when, at the beginning of the restoration of independence, the young country was fighting for survival.

NATO had played an important role in maintaining the unity of the West, including by supporting the Baltic states. The NATO Council was the forum in which Estonia’s friends, Icelandic foreign minister Jón Baldwin Hannibalsson and his Danish counterpart, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, suggested that the Baltic states be recognised. Together with Meri, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of the NATO Cooperation Council (NACC) in December 1992, to which all the liberated European and former Soviet countries were invited. In the middle of the meeting, the Soviet ambassador received a call from Moscow and was asked to change the name sign in front of him from “USSR” to “Russian Federation”, which, of course, created a general furore.

NATO enlargement was one of the key topics in 1993–4, but the leaders of Western countries, especially the US, remained very sceptical about it. The Partnership for Peace programme was developed, which I signed as foreign minister in January 1994. This also became Estonia’s first step on its road to NATO. Large Eastern European countries such as Poland did not agree with the American decision and continued to exert pressure. Of course, Polish expatriates also played a major role here. In 1995, NATO issued its report on enlargement, which became the basis for the Alliance’s opening to the east.

The requirements for joining ranged from political democracy to a market economy and the development of defence forces. For Estonia, the most difficult prerequisite was to have no quarrels with its neighbours and for border issues to be resolved. One by one, answers were found to all the questions that the opponents to joining were complaining about. It is important to understand that Estonia’s road to NATO membership was not straight and one-way, but rather complex and controversial. The outcome was far from predictable and it is perfectly conceivable that Estonia might not have become a member.

NATO’s decision to provide partners with the opportunity to establish representation in the Alliance under the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Programme was also a sign of its openness. In 1996, Estonia established an office in the Manfred Wörner Building, adjacent to NATO Headquarters. Soon, an Estonian national military representative and a Ministry of Defence adviser began work in Brussels, as well as a representative at the NATO military headquarters (SHAPE). A full-scale representation was established to gather all relevant information. In Tallinn, Harri Tiido took on the role of Deputy Secretary General for NATO-related topics in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

As the 1997 Madrid Summit began, it was quite clear that at least three countries would be invited to join NATO, while the fate of others was still unknown. The tension reached its peak during the summit, and funnily enough Estonia must thank Jacques Chirac, the French president, above all. Chirac did not support Estonia but had promised strong support to Romania and Slovenia. So, in addition to the general acceptance that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic should join, Chirac decided to stop the whole process and began to argue strongly for Romania and Slovenia. The German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, quite irritated by this, said that in this case the Baltic states should also be discussed.

It should be remembered that Kohl, who was often criticised in Estonia for being too friendly with Russia, said: “Germany also has a special responsibility towards the Baltic states. Germans could never forget that Hitler betrayed these countries. Their torturous past could not be forgotten either. NATO must therefore also send a clear signal that it would be open to them too at some point in the future.”1

President Chirac, who would probably not otherwise have supported the Baltic states, finally agreed to give hope to Romania, Slovenia and the Baltic states. This sentence in the Madrid Declaration was enough for us: “At the same time, we recognise the progress achieved towards greater stability and cooperation by the states in the Baltic region which are also aspiring members.”2 Romania, Slovenia and the Baltic states were the only “aspiring members” mentioned in the declaration. Today, this sentence does not sound like anything special, but at the time it was a great victory for Estonia.

From that moment, a group was formed of countries (those mentioned above plus Slovakia) considered as candidates for the next round of enlargement. At the Washington Summit in 1999 Estonia was hoping for an invitation, but that year was also full of risks: foreign-policy giant Zbigniew Brzezinski suggested enlargement by two countries, so that growth would be uninterrupted but sufficiently “safe”. His candidates were Slovenia and Lithuania, but not Estonia. Fortunately, a more constructive path was taken, and aspirant countries were identified and, figuratively speaking, handed a roadmap for getting to NATO. This bureaucratic framework began to be represented by the Membership Action Plan.

In Estonia, the government established a working group headed by diplomat Margus Kolga, which published annual reports on the work done to build Estonia’s democracy, economy and defence forces.

NATO’s invitation to Estonia at the Prague Summit in 2002 was a major step, with the country’s readiness for membership coinciding with global developments . I have always stressed this last factor to Ukrainians and Georgians, who are also eager to join NATO. In international politics, you never know when the right moment is going to be, but when it comes, you must be ready for it. Estonia was.

The change in political climate was caused by two very intriguing facts. In Russia, president Vladimir Putin had just come to power; in his early years he felt under pressure from pro-Western forces—which he later got rid of. (That is why he was far more open to the West at that time than he is now.) George W. Bush, however, had come down with the occupational disease of all newly elected US presidents—he believed that it was possible to negotiate with Russia. This short romance culminated in an amusing meeting in Slovenia, at which president Bush said he had looked into the soul of his Russian counterpart. This saying later became the source of many jokes, but at the time such a warm attitude was helpful for us. Putin reacted calmly to the Baltic states’ accession to NATO, admitting that, in his view, the problem of enlargement was that it did not contribute to the establishment of a collective security system.

Another very important—and at the same time very tragic—factor in Estonia’s path to membership was the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, which had an unexpected impact on the application. First, it brought Russia and the US closer, and raised terrorism to the status of global enemy; the Baltic states’ security issues no longer appeared as important. Defence experts had repeatedly pointed out that the Baltic states had little depth in defence and were located far from NATO transport hubs, so they could not be adequately protected in the event of a crisis. Now all these discussions seemed pointless.

In January 2002, the second government of Mart Laar resigned. This was for internal political reasons, but it meant that Estonia was able to choose for itself a suitable time to apply for NATO membership. It was decided not to do so before we were confident of securing the invitation. As political concerns over Russia had diminished, good preparation became decisive. Prior to the Prague Summit, the political reality was that there were more doubts about other candidates than over the Baltic states. Rather, there were issues with some other allies that had high levels of corruption or where NATO was less popular.

In 2004, I was serving as ambassador to Washington and witnessed the prime minister, Juhan Parts, handing over the Estonian documents ratifying the Washington Treaty to the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell. With this step, Estonia became a member of NATO. But new problems arose immediately. The first dispute occurred the same year when it became clear that the Baltic states did not have any aircraft to join a single Estonian air-defence system. Where could we get these planes? Would any of the Allies agree to supply them? That is how the establishment of a single air-defence system began. When Estonia joined NATO, its struggles were far from over—only at the beginning of the next phase.


1 Ronald D. Asmus, NATO avanemine. Eesti Entsüklopeediakirjastus (2005), p. 253. (English edition: Opening NATO’s Door. New York: Council on Foreign Relations/Columbia University Press)

2 NATO Press release, ‘Madrid Declaration on Euro-Atlantic Security and Cooperation’, 8 July 1997. https://www.nato.int/docu/pr/1997/p97-081e.htm


The North Atlantic Treaty

Washington D.C., 4 April 1949


The Parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments.

They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.

They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area.

They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security. They therefore agree to this North Atlantic Treaty:

Article 1

The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international dispute in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered, and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.

Article 2

The Parties will contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being. They will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them.

Article 3

In order more effectively to achieve the objectives of this Treaty, the Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.

Article 4

The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.

Article 5

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

Article 6

For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:

– on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France 2, on the territory of Turkey or on the Islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer;

on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.

Article 7

This Treaty does not affect, and shall not be interpreted as affecting in any way the rights and obligations under the Charter of the Parties which are members of the United Nations, or the primary responsibility of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Article 8

Each Party declares that none of the international engagements now in force between it and any other of the Parties or any third State is in conflict with the provisions of this Treaty, and undertakes not to enter into any international engagement in conflict with this Treaty.

Article 9

The Parties hereby establish a Council, on which each of them shall be represented, to consider matters concerning the implementation of this Treaty. The Council shall be so organised as to be able to meet promptly at any time. The Council shall set up such subsidiary bodies as may be necessary; in particular it shall establish immediately a defence committee which shall recommend measures for the implementation of Articles 3 and 5.

Article 10

The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty. Any State so invited may become a Party to the Treaty by depositing its instrument of accession with the Government of the United States of America. The Government of the United States of America will inform each of the Parties of the deposit of each such instrument of accession.

Article 11

This Treaty shall be ratified, and its provisions carried out by the Parties in accordance with their respective constitutional processes. The instruments of ratification shall be deposited as soon as possible with the Government of the United States of America, which will notify all the other signatories of each deposit. The Treaty shall enter into force between the States which have ratified it as soon as the ratifications of the majority of the signatories, including the ratifications of Belgium, Canada, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States, have been deposited and shall come into effect with respect to other States on the date of the deposit of their ratifications.

Article 12

After the Treaty has been in force for ten years, or at any time thereafter, the Parties shall, if any of them so requests, consult together for the purpose of reviewing the Treaty, having regard for the factors then affecting peace and security in the North Atlantic area, including the development of universal as well as regional arrangements under the Charter of the United Nations for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Article 13

After the Treaty has been in force for twenty years, any Party may cease to be a Party one year after its notice of denunciation has been given to the Government of the United States of America, which will inform the Governments of the other Parties of the deposit of each notice of denunciation.

Article 14

This Treaty, of which the English and French texts are equally authentic, shall be deposited in the archives of the Government of the United States of America. Duly certified copies will be transmitted by that Government to the Governments of other signatories.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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